Invisible Systems, Invisible Women

Reading one book right after another book can make you think differently about both books.

Caroline Criado Perez’ Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men and Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik’s Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do about It are both very insightful. Invisible Women describes, through numerous and very depressing examples, how a world that pretends to be “gender neutral” is still a male world, because gender does matter.

When gender isn’t considered in system development or product design, or isn’t separated out in data collection, outputs that are supposed to serve everyone often don’t work for women. For example, first-responder safety gear designed for “average” (read=male) bodies can actually be dangerous for women to wear, because the components don’t fit correctly and thus aren’t as protective as they need to be.

Another of Criado Perez’ examples of hidden gender discrimination is public transit pricing. Transit fares based on zones or trip length can be more costly for women, because women’s transit usage patterns are generally different from men’s. Women do more caretaking than men, and work more part-time jobs – so they are more likely to make multiple or multi-destination trips.

But unpaid caretaking isn’t usually included in measures of employment or employment-related activity, and that means it’s also excluded from the data that are used to predict and price public transit usage. So women end up paying more to use transit when transit systems and prices are designed around the assumption that users are making single-destination trips or a single return trip each day.

Meltdown explores why complex systems within organizations fail, even when they are designed to be safe, and why they sometimes fail with catastrophic consequences. I was particularly drawn to this book because of my own research interest in organizations, and I was thrilled to see that Meltdown included the work of researchers such as Charles Perrow – who, as a sociologist, has looked beyond the mechanics of systems to explore how organizational culture and people’s interactions can cause tragic and often preventable events.

The human element in organizations is essential to understand – as I tell my students, an organization isn’t a person, so it can’t make decisions; it’s the people in the organization that decide what the organization is going to do. So understanding how people behave in an organization is often the key to understanding how to design organizational systems that are efficient, usable and safer.

However, I read Meltdown right after I read Invisible People, and that led me to notice something largely absent from Meltdown. Although Meltdown focuses on both people and systems within organizations, it has almost no discussion of how gender might affect organizational events that lead to failures.









This omission may have been more noticeable because of another recent organizational disaster. A few weeks ago, Forbes magazine released a list of “the 100 most innovative leaders in America”. Only one of the 100 leaders was female. The magazine’s editor acknowledged that the list was subjective, but claimed that it was compiled using a methodology that was “honed for years”, and that women were almost absent from the list was because there are so few women leaders at large US companies.

Outraged readers immediately pointed out that the panel members who developed the criteria and made the choices were all men, and that criteria such as “innovative premium”, partially based on a company’s market value, were inherently gender-biased because venture capitalists are much more likely to invest in companies run by men than companies run by women. (To his credit, Forbes’ editor apologized, and made a commitment to reviewing and revising the criteria, with more diverse input.)

Meltdown does have one chapter on diversity, titled “The Speed Bump Effect”. The title alludes to the idea that diversity in group or organizational membership, in the authors’ words, “makes groups more skeptical”, and thus brings in different viewpoints that slow things down, but ultimately can help identify “big threats” and avoid potential mistakes. However, the authors’ description of “diversity” is really unfortunate. “Diversity is like a speed bump. It’s a nuisance, but it snaps us out of our comfort zone and makes it hard to barrel ahead without thinking” (p. 194).

The concept that the authors are trying to communicate is worthwhile. But describing diversity as a “nuisance” – and isolating it in its own chapter, rather than incorporating diversity-related perspectives throughout the entire book – is exactly the sort of false gender-neutrality, or inadvertent gender blindness, that Invisible Women rightly characterizes as problematic and dangerous.

The frustrating thing about the lack of a gender-based perspective in Meltdown is that several of the book’s analyses of organizational failures would be even stronger if gender was considered. For example, it was a female member of the presidential committee investigating the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant disaster – one of only three women on the 11-member committee – who suggested that the committee consult sociologist Perrow, as well as engineers and nuclear scientists, to determine how the plant’s safety systems failed.

Another example is the story of LeeAnne Walters, whose activism led to the discovery of lead poisoning in the Flint, Michigan, water supply system. From Clearfield and Tilcsik’s description of Walters’ experiences, it seems quite reasonable to assume that her initial complaints to city and state officials about water quality were brushed aside because she was “just” a stay-at-home mom.

We can learn a lot from Meltdown and from Invisible Women; both are extremely well-written and very much worth reading. But the system failures described in Meltdown and the systemic blindness to gender described in Invisible Women can be more fully understood if the ideas from one book are applied to the ideas in the other.

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